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Sutherland ‘68

by Mike Palmer

In the blur of early morning on Saturday 7th August a party of BEC members comprising Tony Meaden, Phil Coles, Mike Palmer and Colin Priddle set out to explore the caving area of Sutherland in N.W. Scotland.

A pre-arranged stop was made in Edinburgh, where we enjoyed the hospitality of ‘Manch’ and the local pub.

The G.S.G. party were to have travelled from Edinburgh in a jeep, but this refused to function satisfactorily and on Sunday morning when the BEC party set out for Sutherland they were still trying to mesmerize the engine into life.  Apart from stops to purchase provisions and to take the odd photograph, the journey was uneventful and the GSG hut was reached by early evening. After moving in operations were completed and cooking a meal had been vetoed, an expedition began to find the nearest public house (which happen to be called hotels).

The hut is situated about 14 miles from Ullapool on the A835 just inside Sutherland border and on the outskirts of the village of Elphin, which is more generally known as the Knockan area.  From the hut, though the village of Elphin, the road can be followed to a tee junction with the A837 at Ledmore.  The nearest hotel from there is to the right and only a short distance down the road, but it proved to be hopeless since it didn’t stock drought beer; however a few bottles were consumed since closing time was near.

Early Monday morning John Manchip arrived in a Reliant Car with a young lad from GSG named Andrew. This arrival interrupted Tony Meaden’s attempt to frighten Phil Coles with tales of ghosts and how they particularly haunt old crofter’s cottages occupied by cavers!

From the hut a very fine view of the surrounding mountains (hills?) is obtained, one in particular being very prominent, Cul Mor.  This is a twin peaked mountain of a mere 2,786ft. the shape of which appealed to the erotic instinct of the of the party and during the safety of breakfast we decided it would be a worthwhile walk.

Three hours later, four of us had reached the highest summit of the two peaks, while the other two, Phil and Colin had taken the other route to the slightly lower peak.

Needless to say Tony had only flexed his muscles a trifle, while the rest of us were absolutely ‘shattered’; the view however was magnificent and a fit reward for our efforts.

The evening found everyone very much in need of suitable refreshment and joined by another member of the G.S.G., Robin (desperate) Duncan, who hitched up from Edinburgh, we turned left at the tee junction and ended up at the other hotel at a place called Inchnadaugh.  No doubt by now some of the exploits of our party was common knowledge at the hotel, so suffice to say that the beer and barmaids were excellent and the hotel is highly recommended.

Because of the very fine weather a lot of the time was spent locating beaches where we could laze in the sun.  One of the best we found – and spent most of our time – was the Bay of Claichtoll, which is approached by following the B869 that branches off the A837 north of Lochinver.

Sad to say on Wednesday we all decided to end the misery of idling our time away on the beach and went caving!  The cave that we chose to explore is situated in the Traligill Valley and was easily found by following a tracked marked on the O.S. map from behind the Inchadamph Hotel.  By careful driving it is possible to navigate a car to a point close to a cottage near the end of the track, which proved to be useful changing place.  Following the general direction of the track, which is well worn, the Cnoc-nan-Uamh System is soon reached (NG. 276206) the distance being about a mile.  The entrance is easily recognisable since it is a large open bedding plane with a sizeable stream running from the left across the visible bottom and disappearing to the right.

Laden with diving gear the party followed the stream to the right, down a spectacular bedding plane, until a short crawl at the bottom ended abruptly in a sump.  Quite impressed by the size of the sump and the amount of water being consumed, Colin was soon prepared for a short exploratory dive.

After 20ft. he returned to explain that the sump followed the line of the cave and was quite large – the water was very clear.  A second dive resulted in a penetration of approximately 50ft., at which Colin decided it was unwise to continue without diving support.  On this occasion he reported that he was nearly able to provide us with a supper of trout, which he saw swimming near the sump.

Next, the upstream passages of the system were explores.  The party was soon halted by a loud sucking noise, which at first was rather alarming until it was discovered that it was caused by a small whirlpool of water where the stream sank in the bed and reappeared in a small pot below. 

Several ducks had to be negotiated, which entailed immersion up to the neck, but they were very sporting and good experience.  This brought us to Landslip Chamber and a large pool approximately 20ft. x 20ft. which appeared to be quite deep.  The stream clearly flowed from this pool and it thought that the pool hides a large sump; because of the size of the pool Colin decided that it would be dangerous to dive by himself.  Also the diving gear was too far away.

Traversing round the pool, a large passage was easily followed after a short crawl.  This appeared to be of phreatic nature and towards its end it began to dip towards another sump which looked black and evil. It could be that the passage (like P.R. in Swildons) might rejoin the stream way at a higher level beyond the sump, which showed clear evidence of resurging in times of flood or even normal wet weather.

After Mike has wallowed around in the sump for a short time and only proved that it went deeper and could not be passed at this time, the party returned top the entrance and sunshine.

On Friday we went caving again (apart from JM who stayed in bed) and almost wished we hadn’t bothered. Apart from the cave, called Elphin Hole (NG. 20870956) being uninteresting, we were nearly massacred by the Scottish midges en-route to the cave entrance – they are really ferocious and draw blood.

That just about wrapped up our active holiday band we were forced to go back to the beach and laze in the sun.  To end on a serious note, the potential for caving is good and for those who enjoy walking there is plenty of it and we are sure that the BEC will be welcome to stay at the GSG hut.